Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) representatives from across Canada landed in Ottawa this week to urge the federal Liberals to act on an election promise to implement a new funding transfer to provinces and territories for mental health care.
“Canadians are proud that our universal health care system looks at our need for care and not our ability to pay,” said CMHA CEO Margaret Eaton at a press conference on Nov. 14. “But our health care is not universal at all, especially where mental health is concerned.”
In addition to being the organization’s first major federal lobbying blitz, the day also served as the launch pad for a national campaign, “ACT for Mental Health,” which has the support of more than 30 organizations.
The campaign calls on the federal Liberals to create a permanent “Canada mental health and substance use health transfer,” and to legislate a Canada Universal Mental Health and Substance Use Health Act.
The Liberals promised to establish a mental health transfer during the 2021 federal election campaign, and its creation is included in the December 2021 mandate letters of Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Other supporters of the campaign include the Canadian Nurses Association, Community Addictions Peer Support Association, and the Canadian Child Care Federation.
The Lobby Monitor shadowed the CMHA during the organization’s debut Hill day on Mon. Nov. 14. The CMHA granted access to its pre-briefing meeting, its Hill day headquarters throughout the day, and an evening reception.
This is what was observed throughout the day:
The day begins in a second-floor conference room at the ALT Hotel on Slater Street.
SM Leduc, CMHA National’s government relations adviser, and Sarah Kennell, the association’s director of public policy, are preparing briefing folders for participants at a long table. Coffee machines are at the ready just outside the door.
Today has been months in the making, Leduc says, and is based on lessons learned from a smaller lobbying push during Mental Health Week in May, which motivated the federation to work on “articulating the common vision.”
Kennell says invitations were sent out approximately six weeks ago, and the schedule for meetings with federal officials came together on Nov. 10 and Nov. 11. Some MPs reached out as recently as the prior evening to seek a meeting, she says.
A breakfast buffet has joined the coffee machine just outside the door. Lobby day attendees begin to file into the room. The CMHA is a federation, with offices in every province and the Yukon. Delegates are coming from Newfoundland in the east to Vancouver Island in the west, and represent their respective provincial and territorial organizations.
I hear the constant refrain of, “Nice to meet you in person.” After two and a half years of connecting through videoconferencing, the November lobby day is the first chance many have had to meet face to face.
Everybody finds their seat at the table as a two-minute warning is called. Folders are distributed to teams of three to four people, containing maps, briefing notes, and information about the officials they will meet. The CMHA’s leave-behind (a two-page summary of the campaign) is also distributed.
The formal briefing begins with introductions. Also present are members of the National Council of Persons with Lived Experience, an advisory body to CMHA made up of volunteers with lived or living experience of mental illness.
There are also two guests in the room: myself, and Gordon Taylor Lee, managing partner of NATIONAL Public Relations’ Ottawa office.
CMHA CEO Eaton thanks everybody for attending, and the staff for making today possible. She emphasizes the federation’s power in being able to provide federal officials with an understanding of the challenges facing communities across the country. She also notes that the ACT for Mental Health campaign is not just a CMHA-branded exercise, but a call from a coalition for action on the Canada mental health transfer.
Next up is Kennell, who notes the importance of having representatives from across the country meet with parliamentarians. While she and Leduc regularly speak with MPs and ministers’ offices, Kennell says that they live in only two of the 338 federal ridings, and cannot bring that first-hand experience from other parts of the country.
Leduc runs through some logistical details for the day. Among some of the pointers are:
Start by asking the MP a question, which will help build rapport. Questions can include, “What are you hearing about mental health or substance abuse from constituents?”
Be clear and concise about the message you’re delivering. MPs can be experts at deflection, and will try to stick to speaking points. Have a volley ready. If they want to discuss a pet project, suggest that a follow-up meeting be arranged to discuss that topic, while sticking to the issue at hand.
Thank the MP for their time, and ask to take a photo, which the CMHA can then post on social media. Come back to the hotel throughout the day, and share notes about the meetings. This can help other members in later meetings, and provides the organization with observations.
Kennell turns everybody’s attention to the leave-behind. There are three main messages from the campaign: the mental health transfer is the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, and the government can’t afford not to.
The members of the coalition will hold parliamentarians’ “feet to the fire” on ensuring that the Canada mental health transfer is included in Budget 2023, she said.
NATIONAL’s Gordon Taylor Lee (who was not working on behalf of the organization) stands up to speak about the political context on the Hill. The delegates will be meeting with key decision makers, including ministers, ministerial staffers, opposition critics, and committee members.
Meetings have been set up with MPs such as Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay; Élisabeth Brière, parliamentary secretary to Minister Bennett; and Michelle Ferreri, the Conservative critic for social development.
The CMHA and partners in the ACT for Mental Health campaign hold a press conference at the Sir John A. Macdonald Building on Wellington Street.
Speaking at the press conference are CMHA CEO Eaton; Leora Simon, chair of the National Council of Persons with Lived Experience; Marion Cooper, CEO of CMHA Manitoba and Winnipeg; Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity; and Michèle Biss, national director of the National Right to Housing Network.
Seated at a long table on a raised platform, Eaton is the first to speak.
Eaton: “Today, our coalition is calling on Prime Minister [Justin Trudeau], Deputy Prime Minister Freeland, Health Minister Duclos and Mental Health Minister Bennett to create the promised Canada mental health transfer in the next federal budget, with an annual investment of $5.3 billion, equivalent to 12 per cent of provincial and territorial health expenditures, with 50 per cent earmarked for community-based services.”
Simon: “Many people with lived experience feel abandoned, left to fend for themselves until the next crisis, if they survive. It shouldn't be like this. It doesn't need to be like this.”
Cooper: “[A transfer] would ease the strain on the acute care health system, reduce hospitalization, [and] provide options beyond emergency departments. We need a system that actually works like a system.”
Owusu-Akyeeah: “Closing gaps in access and addressing systemic discrimination requires diverse people with lived and living experiences with mental health illnesses and substance use health concerns to be included in a meaningful way in the system change.”
Biss: “For people with serious mental health illness and substance use health concerns, staying housed and getting well requires supports like addictions counseling, case management, and employment assistance.”
CMHA reps aren’t the only ones talking about mental health on the Hill on Monday.
Mental Health Minister Bennett sits in a committee room in West Block, where she is taking questions from members of the House status of women committee for their study of the mental health of young women and girls.
It doesn’t take long for opposition MPs to ask why the federal Liberals have not implemented their promised Canada mental health transfer.
Bennett tells Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri that her government is working with provinces and territories to produce an action plan for mental health. Ferreri asks her to either table the action plan or a timeline for its release with the committee because witnesses who have appeared during the study “have sort of waited on bated breath” for the funding.
NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron, her party’s deputy health critic, said she understands the need for planning, but asks why this work can’t happen while funding is being distributed.
Back at the ALT Hotel, delegates have returned from morning meetings and are discussing their experiences over sandwiches.
I ask one of the groups about the meetings. They were “really encouraged” by the experience of speaking with MPs, and sharing personal stories. Some have held lobby days with provincial governments, but hearing from opposition MPs in particular was enlightening, they say.
Leduc sits at a desk at the front of the room, where she has been co-ordinating meetings and responses with MPs. Only two have cancelled meetings so far, she says, but have asked to postpone to another day. Meanwhile, she says other MPs have reached out to set up meetings after hearing from caucus colleagues.
The evidence of positive meetings are becoming evident on social media. NDP Indigenous services critic Lori Idlout has tweeted that it was a “pleasure” to meet with the CMHA. Jonny Morris, CEO of the CMHA British Columbia division, tweeted out his thanks to Idlout and NDP housing critic Jenny Kwan for meeting with him. The CMHA National account also sends a shout-out to Conservative addictions critic Laila Goodridge, thanking her for her time.
NDP mental health critic Gord Johns issues a press release in response to the CMHA’s campaign. Saying the Liberals are “failing” Canadians’ mental health by “refusing” to deliver mental health supports, the release calls on the federal government to “address the wait times to access mental health services, deliver the funding the frontline organizations have been pleading for, and get everyday people the help they need.”
With the sun setting and most meetings over for the day, CMHA representatives make their way to a reception at Rabbit Hole on Sparks Street. In the downstairs bar, delegates mingle with parliamentarians and ACT for Mental Health campaign partners. Charcuterie boards, pizzas, and drinks are distributed.
CMHA CEO Eaton takes to a small stage alongside Karla Thorpe, vice-president of external affairs and development at the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), to thank participants for attending and to stress the importance of the campaign. MHCC is a supporter of the ACT for Mental Health campaign.
Later on, I ask Kennell and Leduc about the day. Kennell says it has been “really successful. I think we took a really strategic approach to our day, where we targeted our invitations to folks with clear decision-making authority, whether it be inside government or from an opposition perspective, to really achieve the influence we want to see.”
Part of that success came from preparing and briefing delegates, Leduc says. “They were invested from the beginning and involved from the beginning of this process, and so they were able to really imbue this campaign with what they're hearing from the community,” she says. “The next step is plotting what comes next. We'll see what the response is. We're certainly going to be doing something before Budget 2023.”
Leduc says that while today’s event was a lobby day for CMHA, the fact that ACT for Mental Health is backed by a coalition means a future Hill day including representatives from the different organizations is possible. Kennell also noted the major logistical and funding challenge of holding today’s lobby day.
“I think that it's really important to acknowledge that it takes privilege to be able to influence the halls of government and that all organizations should have access to the resources we have to be able to make this happen,” she said. “The GR work is being led in-house because we have the capacity and the resources to do that, and that's a very privileged position to be in.”
As we wrap up the interview, the final contingent arrives from the last meeting of the day. The Hill day is over, but Kennell says the work on the campaign is only just beginning.
– With files from Tessie Sanci.